Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Special Announcement

As of July 1st, I will no longer be updating this blog. I am merging it with its secret sister blog, the Geeky Librarian over at wordpress. As time has gone on my other blog has begun to veer into review territory as well (under the guise of collection development) so it no longer seemed practical to keep these two separate. So please point your browser over there, where there will be almost daily updates (I've managed to average 6 posts a week).

So to anyone who has been reading this page, thank you for coming and I hope to see you on the new and improved Geeky Librarian.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy is the comics debut of My Chemical Romance frontman, Gerard Way, and as it turns out the man can write. This is an utterly original, hugely ambitious book the succeeds wildly at everything it tries.

The story revolves around a dysfunctional family of super-powered siblings who are reunited at their foster father's funeral. Throughout the course of the story they eventually unite to prevent the end of the world, at the hands of a killer orchestra. This book is edited by the ingenious Scott Allie, and the tone of the story bares a strong resemblance to the moody humor found in his other Dark Horse books, Hellboy and the Goon.

And much like those books there's a general (somehow believable) wackiness to the world in the story. Besides the orchestra the book also contains such sites as alien squid wrestling, a killer Eiffel Tower, and more talking monkeys than any other book in recent history. The art from Gabriel Ba (along with the best coloring I've ever seen from Dave Stewart) sells every insane moment, and I could not imagine another artist capable of pulling this book off. Between this and Casanova last year Ba is my #1 artist to watch.

This would have been a shoein for my book of the year, if Iron Fist didn't come out at the same time. It's definitely a good time to be a comics fan.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Coffin

The Coffin is the first of Phil Hester and Mike Huddleston's psychological horror collaborations, and it's really good. The publicity for the book markets it as being a Frankenstein story, in which the scientist turns himself into the monster. That's a bit simplistic but not too far off. The plot involves a scientist working on a suit capable of trapping a soul in a corpse, allowing the soul to control the body after death. An attempt is of course made on his life and he is forced to test the suit on himself. A fairly ordinary revenge story follows.

However, what makes the story interesting is the toll on the protagonist's psyche. He is trapped in his own corpse, while his soul is constantly trying to tear itself away (despite the fact that he seems bound for hell). This makes for an interesting vengefull ghost story on top of the typical mad scientist tropes.

And then there is Huddleston's art, which elevates the story the story even further. Huddleston is an incredibly atmospheric artist who is able to greatly modify his style to fit any given scene. And it probably helps that Hester is a decent artist in his own right, and thus someone who really knows how to write for an artist, making for a pitch perfect collaboration.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Born on the Battlefield

Dark Horse's current Conan comic has the distinction of being the only Conan adaptation that has ever matched the greatness of the original Robert E. Howard stories. More than one reviewer has actually said that they're better (they're very close to my mind). The comic regularly features gorgeous art from Cary Nord, and Kurt Busiek's writing is an unbelievably faithful take on the Conan mythos.

And scattered throughout the ongoing story have been a series of tales from Conan's youth, featuring the amazing Greg Ruth on art. I had trouble with these comics originally, Ruth's art was a huge departure from Nord's, and the idea of an ongoing story that was only progressed every half dozen issues or so drove me nuts. Fortunately they have now been collected together into Born On the Battlefield, and I think it's now my favorite arc the series has had. Highly recommended.

O.M.A.C.

O.M.A.C.: the one Man Army Corps, was the last of Jack Kirby's DC work, and it was also by far the strangest. The story takes place in "the world's that coming" (a line that never seems to get old), in which Buddy Blank has been molecularly altered by an intelligent satellite named Brother Eye into becoming a one man peacekeeping force. Together with the Global Peace Agency (comprised of legions of faceless (in order to appear raceless and thus completely neutral) they battle legions of super rich gangsters.

The concept gives Kirby lots of room to let his imagination fly, and the result is a sort of stream of consciousness wonder that I don't believe was matched until Grant Morrison came along (Kirby was a huge influence on his work). OMAC confronts subway mutants, pseudo people, and in my favorite issue an entire city that is rented out as a deathtrap.

The only fault with the book is the way it ends. After 8 issues, Kirby finally ended his time at DC to return home to Marvel (where he worked on Captain America, Black Panther, and the Eternals). And since the sales weren't that good on the book (it was far too ahead of its time), DC changed the final panel so that everyone randomly explodes. It's very surreal, but not in a good way. Otherwise I think I actually preferred this book to much of the Fourth World books Kirby worked on during the same period.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Immortal Iron Fist

As a follow up to finishing the Essential Power Man & Iron Fist I read through Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction & David Aja's newest take on Iron Fist. What this team has produced is a nearly perfect comic. The writing is strong and the art is gorgeous, but what really sets this book apart is the scale of it.

Iron Fist is a billionaire martial arts expert who was raised in the otherworldly city of K'un-Lun. This basic premise was always a bit ridiculous, essentially merging Batman and Kung-Fu. But what Brubaker and Fraction have done to make the idea brilliant is to give the whole thing some history. Iron Fist is now merely the most recent person to hold the title, and the presence of all the previous ones are strongly felt in the series. Most especially Orson Randall, the immediate predecessor to the current Iron Fist, who led a group of pulp adventurers in the wake of WWI.

The resulting story from all this spans 8 worlds and a millenium of history. There's also tons of action and the introduction of Fat Cobra to seal the deal. This is essential reading for all comics fans.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Monster Zoo

Doug TenNapel is back with Monster Zoo, his third graphic novel in the last year. The title pretty much sums up the story this time, a group of teens are trapped in a zoo in which the animals have been turned into monsters. But because this is a TenNapel book it's much better than that might sound. He is just a master storyteller who combines a hyperactive imagination with expert storytelling skills and the best brushwork in comics. And he makes it all look so effortless.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deadpool Classic

Deadpool is the most recent major comic character that no publisher knows what to do with. He's currently about to make his 3rd attempt at an ongoing series, not counting when he was sharing the lead of Cable/Deadpool or when he temporarily lost his own comic to Agent X for a year. There are two main reasons for why these various attempts never last. First of all the Merc with the Mouth is a simply bizarre sort of character for a heroic lead. And second, Deadpool has been living in the shadow of the Joe Kelly run on the title ever since Kelly left.

Which finally brings me to the first volume of Deadpool Classic. As I've just said the only classic Deadpool stories were the Joe Kelly ones, only the first issue of which is in this collection. This issue launched the careers of both Kelly and artist Ed McGuinness and lead to one of the best runs in recent Marvel history, which will hopefully get collected in a future volume.

The rest of this book is made up of Deadpool's first appearance in the New Mutants and the two mini-series that predated his ongoing, written by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Waid. The Nicieza series was an enjoyable enough action story, but was largely forgettable. The Mark Waid follow-up was a bit more interesting as it advanced Deadpool's character quite a bit by setting him up as a killer with the potential to become someone better. These are all good reads, but all this book really does is make me want the second, all Joe Kelly volume.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Philosopher's Apprentice

The Philosopher's Apprentice is the latest of James Morrow's salvos against the forces of fundamentalism. Now normally I love this books unconditionally. Morrow is a amazingly gifted writer and in my case he is very much preaching to the choir. However this time around I have some mixed feelings.

My main complaint is that Morrow has finally written a novel in which the moralizing runs away with the story. Granted that's sort of inevitable when the protagonist of the story is a failed philosopher turned ethics teacher. But the story is quite good when it is given a chance to exist apart from the author's preaching.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist

Power Man and Iron Fist is one of the more ill conceived comics that Marvel has published during its history. Both of the title characters were the leads of underselling (very) 70's titles. Power Man was Marvel's token Blaxploitation comic, and Iron Fist was their attempt to merge super-hero books with the kung-fu fad. The two characters have nothing in common and making a billionaire character like Iron Fist decide to join Power Man to form Heroes for Hire (an equally bad concept that has never worked) seemed even more forced.

However, it is to the writers' credit that the pairing feels surprisingly natural. The concept may be ridiculous, but the two characters are strong enough to survive it, albeit just barely. The plots do a somewhat decent job of merging the back stories of the two leads and the writers are seem to be very aware of the faults in the heroes for hire concept. Quite a few stories revolve around the Heroes being hired by disreputable clients and then trying to find a way to get out of their contracts and still get paid, not exactly the most noble of superheroes.

Which leaves us with some good characters, decent art, fairly good writing, but a reason for existence that is totally ludicrous.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Amphigorey Again

Edward Gorey is a legend, plain and simple. He was one of the few truly unique storytellers the world has ever seen. And thus I had extraordinarily high expectations for the final collection of his work, Amphigorey Again. Sadly the book did not quite reach them, but then there was really no way it possibly could.

This book collects whatever pieces didn't make it into the other 3 Amphigorey collections. There are a few standouts, I particularly like the two stories featuring the Bahhumbug, The Haunted Tea-Cosy and the Headless Bust. But many of the tales presented here are leftover story ideas, a few of which were never completed.

Of course being from Gorey these are all impeccable examples of his skill. But in the end I can only recommend this collection for Gorey completeists . For everyone else, stick with the other three books in the series

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Dexter In the Dark

Dexter In the Dark is the most recent of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter novels, and I have the same problem with it that I do with the prior novels, the plot just isn't very good. In fact the plot this time completely took me out of the story by adding in some entirely unnecessary fantasy elements that to my mind ruin the heart of Dexter's character.

However, while I hate the new conception of why Dexter is compelled to commit various horrible acts, the character himself is as strong as ever. Furthermore, the subplot of this novel, in which Dexter begins to train his step children in how to get away with murder is brilliant and makes the book worth reading just for those scenes.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Losers

I went into the Losers expecting something amazing because of the creators involved. Andy Diggle is currently writing what my be the best Hellblazer run in that title's history, while Jock has become the #1 artist to watch in my mind with his work on such titles as Green Arrow: Year One and Faker. But I think the Losers just didn't live up to the hype for me.

The story focuses on a group of rogue special forces operators who are attempting to make public a rogue CIA agent who left them for dead. It's a fairly standard espionage set up that allows for some great action set pieces, and both creators milk the formula for everything it is worth. This is probably one of the great action books of the last few years.

However, the book falls down when it comes to the characters involved. I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of them and found them to be fairly stereotypical. The Losers are comprised of 1 hacker, 1 femme fatale, 1 doting father, 1 silent killer, and 1 company man, not one of which ever seemed to have more depth than the label applied to them. Still they do serve the purpose of the story nicely, I just expected more from Diggle after the character work he has put into John Constantine.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Showcase Presents Justice League of America Vol.3

The old Gardner Fox stories contained in this third collection of the Justice League of America are a bit of a mixed bag. The stories suffer a lot from the same poor characterization displayed in the prior two volumes. Every member of the league (with the possible exception of Snapper Carr) is an interchangeable blank slate. The only personality characteristic they all share is to be insufferably nice.

Granted that was pretty much the house style for DC at this point in time, but when the characters are all sharing the same stage it becomes that much more glaring. Still this book is a big improvement over the prior two. The plots have become a little more interesting and the villains are start to come into their own at last (with the debuts of the Key, the Shaggy Man, and the Royal Flush Gang). But the highlight of this collection is without a doubt the three JLA/JSA crisis team-ups, which are just a lot of fun to read still and which have a far greater sense of scale.

So there are some good comics in here, but ultimately it just reminds me of why I became a Marvel junkie.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

MT Anderson is far and away the best author working in the YA field today. His novel Feed had more of an emotional resonance with me than any other book I can remember in recent history. At the end of it I really felt like someone had trampled over my heart. And now he's done it again with his first novel, chronicling the astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation.

Octavian is a slave boy, growing up in Revolutionary Massachusetts, and he is the subject of a grand philosophical experiment, which grants him the benefit of a classical education. Octavian also provides Anderson with the perfect point of view character, a slave who has to learn throughout the course of the novel that he is one.

The book is masterfully written, but the one fault I have with it is that I'm not sure what age it is really intended for. It's certainly marketed as YA, and it won quite a few awards in that category as well, but the attention paid to historical speech and the bone chilling nature of portions of the book (the death of one character is only revealed through the reading of a scholarly article on their dissection afterwards) elevates the reading level of the book quite a bit to my mind.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Little Brother

Hey it's my one hundredth post! And to celebrate I finished reading what will probably prove to be the best reviewed YA novel of the year, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, and I'm happy to say that the reviews are very well deserved. This is easily Doctorow's best novel since his debut, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and this is largely due to the fact that he finally worked the passion of his day job into one of his books.

The real rough description for the story is the Department of Homeland Security vs. the youth of America. Along the way Doctorow gets to espouse on the virtues of hacking, how privacy and security can coexist peacefully, and on why each generation should redefine the world around them on their own terms. Unsurprisingly the novel reads a bit like a call to arms, but that's entirely appropriate. This book is supposed to inspire, which very few works of fiction attempt to do, and even fewer succeed at. My first response after finishing this book was that it was such a shame to have to wait until November to vote. For that alone this book should be required reading for every high school student today.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Queen and Country Vol.2

Queen and Country is the book Greg Rucka was born to write, and the second volume cements that claim. This collection is comprised of three stories, and this time Rucka has done a far better job of tailoring his stories to his artists (although their three styles don't mesh so well in a single collection).

Jason Shawn Alexander leads off the book with a story involving the blackmailing of an English citizen by the French government. Carla Speed McNeil follows with an unusually action-heavy story involving a kidnapping in T'Bilisi. Then Mike Hawthorne closes the book on a more political note. Each one is flawless and all together they create the most politically astute espionage thriller I have ever encountered.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dearly Devoted Dexter

Dearly Devoted Dexter is the second novel to feature the serial killing title character. The story improves quite a bit on the original book. The first often felt like the author, Jeff Linday, had to try too hard to be clever. He seems far more assured now and the characters are all a bit more defined.

However, much like the first book the plot isn't terribly interesting. Granted I'm probably a bit biased from having first seen the show which borrows plot elements from these two books and builds a far more satisfying story out of them. The story here mostly suffers from being predictable, while trying to hide this fact behind an over the top crime that's there for the sake of shock value alone.

Still I enjoyed the book, the character of Dexter is just fascinating enough to carry the book along, and the ways in which he reacts to any given situation are consistently brilliant. I'm not sure how much longer Lindsay can continue these stories before they start feeling tiresome, but I suspect Dexter will be able to carry these books for quite some time.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Essential Iron Man Vol.3

To coincide with the movie (two thumbs up) I decided to read through some old Iron Man comics. Now Iron Man has always been a frustrating comic for me. I love the character, he's one of the best that Marvel has. He also has one of the better rogues galleries (as long as you can look past the cold war origins for nearly all of them). Yet there have been remarkable few classic Iron Man comics. The David Micheline/Bob Layton run in the 80's is really about it.

Still, this volume comprises one of the better portions. Archie Goodwin, Allyn Brodsky & Gerry Conway handle most of the writing, with the art George Tuska, Don Heck, and legendary EC artist Johnny Craig. These stories are mostly notable for introducing 3 of the series better (non-communist villains), Madame Masque, the Controller, and Spymaster. The actual stories are mostly forgettable, although fun in a silver age way.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey

Hey, 2 in one day (thanks to the wonder of audio books) not bad. This time out it's Rant by Chuck Palahniuk. Like Halting State earlier today, this is a novel that takes some enormous chances, but this time around it's not for the best. I'm actually kind of amazed this book became the giant mess it did given how strongly it began, really just kind of sad, especially from a writer as assured as Palahniuk.

Anyway, the setup for the book is brilliant. The novel is told as an oral biography of Buster Casey, a kid with a stash of rare coins, a penchant for getting bit by wild animals and living through car crashes, and most importantly the originator of a country wide Rabies epidemic. To make things even stranger, the story takes place in a near future in which the population has been divided into daytime and nighttime camps, and in which playing back the experiences of others has replace all other forms of entertainment. All of these elements are blended together flawlessly.

And narrative pulls a total 180 and becomes a debate over the feasibility of time travel, and what would happen if you impregnated and/or killed your mother. Yeah, an odd choice to say the least, and it ruins what otherwise may have been Palahniuk's best novel (which I still say is Lullaby).

Halting State

Halting State is Charles Stross' latest contender for the best novel Hugo. It's got a shot too (although mostly because it wasn't a terribly great year). Which is not to say that this isn't a good book, just that it narrowly misses being a great one. The novel is a techno thriller, disguised as a spy novel, disguised as a heist story. The whole package is a lot of fun, but it would probably be less so for anyone who can't grok all the techo-babble.

What's also notable about this book, is that the whole thing is written in the 2nd person (from three alternating perspectives at that). It's an interesting choice, and it's used well for the purpose of adding a bit of immersiveness to a story that is largely about gaming. Stross has always been a writer who has been willing to gamble, which I respect even if he fails on occasion (and yes I do mean Accelerando). He certainly doesn't lack for ambition and he does succeed more than he fails. Halting State certainly makes it into his win column.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nixon's Pals

Joe Casey's latest book, Nixon's Pals, was unfortunately a disappointment. I've followed Casey's work since he first launched his career by taking over Cable from James Robinson. He probably has the most distinctive voice of any American comics writer working today. When he is in top form (Godland, Automatic Kafka) he becomes one of today's greatest writers (just not in terms of sales).

However, Casey also writes a lot of fairly average work for hire. Which is why Nixon's Pals (an Image published OGN) caught me off guard when it felt like one of those with the exception of being slightly more over the top (it features a woman whose face is swapped with her nipples). Actually, I can't help but compare this book to Mark Millar's Wanted (coming soon to a theater near you).

This kind of feels like a response to it, in fact it has the exact opposite premise. Wanted concerned an average guy who becomes attracted to the exciting life of a super-villain. Nixon's Pals is about a parole officer who tries to convince super-villains to lead ordinary lives instead. It's not a bad concept, it just doesn't quite live up to what I know Casey is capable of.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fourth World Vol.4

At last, DC has finished collecting Jack Kirby's Fourth World. Sadly volume four cannot help but disappoint after the prior three. This book covers the end of the story, which really just gradually faded from existence. Back in volume 3, Kirby ended his run on Jimmy Olsen, and vol. 4 begins with the final issues of the New Gods and the Forever People (both were canceled abruptly). Kirby managed to stretch Mister Miracle out a little longer by distancing it from the Fourth World epic, but it to came to an early end.

The highlight of this book is the Hunger Dogs, a graphic novel DC hired Kirby to write that was supposed to wrap up the entire story. The rough plot Kirby had worked out was designed to be written over 3 comics for 2 years. Obviously the Hunger Dogs comes off feeling a little rushed at best. Still, it almost succeeds on pure ambition alone, and as always Kirby's art is capable of carrying even the worst of stories.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jenny Finn

Jenny Finn was a book that I seriously thought would never be completed. According to the copyright statement the few published issues were originally printed in 1999. Now here we are 9 years later and this 4 issue series is finally over. I think that might be some sort of record.

This enormous delay was especially sad as this has been one of Mike Mignola's better books. This one would fit right into one of his Hellboy or B.P.R.D. books, but Mignola wanted to place it in Victorian England, which proves to be a smart choice. The atmosphere of this book is everything, and is sold perfectly by the two artists, Troy Nixey and Farel Dalrymple (who really needs to be considered an A-List artist already, go and read the current Omega the Unknown book he's illustrating). But man, nine years between issues was just unforgivable.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Essential Fantastic Four Vol.6

Volume 6 of the Essential Fantastic Four brings the Stan Lee era to a close, and he was a tough act to follow. After all this was the book he used to launch Marvel Comics into the entertainment empire it has become. Without his influence the book quickly entered into a period in which its identity was lost.

Lee was followed by some fairly notable writers, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin and Gerry Conway all have stories in this volume, and the great John Buscema is on art for all but one issue (although it's not up to the standard of his Avengers or Silver Surfer runs). But for some reason none of them really know what to do with the characters. Wisely they all reject the passive role the Invisible Girl had played up until this point, but they way they resolve this is to progressively turn Mr. Fantastic into a bigger and bigger chauvinist until she finally walks out (to be replaced by Medusa). The introduction of Thundra (a seven foot amazon who constantly rants about the weaker, male, sex) is an equally heavy handed attempt to address the wrongs from the first hundred or so issues.

But given the amount of issues in this collection and the talent involved, there is certainly some good in here as well. The Human Torch, Crystal, Quicksilver love triangle is a definite high point. The introduction of Air-Walker, the second Herald of Galactus is quite good too. But it's hard to deny that the FF were treading water at this point, and pretty much continued to do so until John Byrne came on board much later.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Girl in Landscape

Jonathan Lethem is probably my favorite modern author. He has an imagination that puts him at the forefront of fantasists (despite not being one himself) that is combined with a skill that is far beyond any other writer of his generation (or the one before it). By reading Girl in Landscape, I have not completed all but his most recent novel, and he has never disappointed.

The novel revolves around Pella Marsh, a girl just entering her teens who has recently immigrated to the Planet of the Archbuilders, after the death of her mother. This is her coming of age story as she has to relearn who she is in the wake of a tragedy, while also relearning the world around her. The journey she makes is remarkably harsh. In fact this is probably the bleakest take on exploration I have seen in a science-fiction novel.

The planet Pella finds herself on is covered by the ruins of an abandoned civilization, and is populated by the fallen remnants of a once great settlement. Lethem uses this setting to great effect, choosing to focus on what happens to those who are abandoned, in this case both Pella and the entire world surrounding her. This is a truly remarkable book, and it paved the way for the even greater ones Lethem went on to write.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Batman Chronicles Vol.3

DC's chronological reprint of every Batman story continues into 1941 in Vol. 3 of the Batman Chronicles. By now Batman has lost his Dark Knight image fully in favor of becoming a better role model to Robin. However, the lighter tone is nicely balanced by some more interesting stories then those which were seen previously. In addition to a pair of classic Joker stories and the return of Clayface. Batman and Robin also square off against a witch, and a pirate ship.

The best story in this collection is a tribute to Jimmy Cagney's classic film, the Public Enemy, which features a oddly prescient mother-fixated antagonist that's akin to Cagney's role in White Heat, a film that wasn't released for another 8 years.

All in all a fun read, and worth reading for the historical value alone.

Monday, April 07, 2008

New Avengers

With the release of Secret Invasion this last week I wanted to reread Brian Michael Bendis' New Avengers run in order to hopefully pick out the hints towards his uberplot. Overall the series stands up to rereading very well and its nice to see something that appeared to be a small detail in one panel of Avengers #502 play out nearly 4 years later. So yeah, it's clear there has been a plan all this time, even if the constant interruptions by events (House of M, Civil War) seemed to get in the way more than anything else.

The book is not without its flaws, it's never been able to hold onto a consistent art team for one. For another Bendis had to spend an inordinate amount of time showing how such a disparate group of characters could fit together, and then had to scrap all of the work he put into it when the Civil War came along.

On the other hand anytime Bendis writes Spider-Man and Luke Cage its something worth reading. The eclectic mix of artists (Mike Deodato Jr., David Finch, Steve McNiven, Leinil Francis Yu & Frank Cho) are all top notch. And now there's Secret Invasion to look forward to, which looks like the first event in quite some time that might actually be fun and not just something to read because it will "change the landscape of the Marvel Universe forever".

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Baum Plan

John Kessel is an incredibly talented writer, and the Baum Plan serves as an excellent introduction to his work. His range as a writer is simply astonishing. This book alone contains a lunar gender study, a reformed criminal tale, and a surprisingly brilliant Mary Shelly meets Jane Austin story (despite it's groan worth title, Pride and Prometheus).

There is not a dud in this collection, however it suffers a bit due to its main virtue. The collection as a whole doesn't fit together to my liking. There is just enough cohesion amongst the stories to make me feel that there should be something more in this book. It's an arbitrary failing, but it does separate this collection from some others (Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners comes to mind) that I'd consider to be truly great.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rogues in the House

For a while now Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord, in the pages of Dark Horse's latest Conan revival, have been telling the best stories ever to feature the character, not actually written by Robert E. Howard. Well as of the fifth collection, Rogues in the House, Busiek is gone and Timothy Truman has been given the inenvious task of following one of the truly great runs in modern comics.

Fortunately Truman is without question the right man for the job. The quality of the writing continues the high standards Busiek set, while still remaining remarkably faithful to the source material. Furthermore it is clear that Truman adores the character and his history. I came very close to not picking up this book due to Busiek's departure, but I am enormously glad that I changed my mind and I eagerly look forward to the next one.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

DMZ: Friendly Fire

The latest volume of Brian Wood's DMZ, Friendly Fire, is the best one yet. The two creators have managed to take their story of an embattled New York City and turn it into what is the most challenging morality tale in recent history.

The basic premise is that an American soldier is being tried for participating in a massacre of civilians. What ensues is an incredibly in depth look into what happens when wars go wrong. In this story no one, whether they be killer, victim, or observer, is innocent yet everyone is entirely justified in their actions. This book has risen from being one of the best comics today, to being something important.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter is the first novel I've read by Jeffry Lindsay, and it will surely not be the last. It's simply fascinating to follow along with the title character (a self-admitted monster who just so happens to be a forensics expert) both in his novels and in the series on Showtime that takes some surprising departures from the novels.

The actual plot is fairly straight forward, and even a bit dull. There's an ingenious serial killer on the loose in Miami and the police are helpless to stop him. That's really about it. But the character of Dexter elevates the basic police procedural into something new. He's someone who walks through life pretending to be a human being, all the while trying in vein to understand the motivations and behaviors of those around him. Oh and every now and then he'll go and cut someone into pieces. And just to warp things a tad more the novel has a bit of a humorous edge to it that makes the whole story even more disturbing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier is probably the darkest of DC's classic war comics (at least when David Micheline took over). The great Joe Kubert originally conceived of the character as the ultimate American soldier. In each story he would assume a disguise and then accomplish some suicide mission. The high concept being that because of the disguise anyone of our soldiers could turn out to be him in disguise, thus elevating our entire armed forces, just painfully patriotic, fortunately this was a WWII comic so that's ok.

And then the writer changed and suddenly the Soldier was transformed into a broken man who was only sent on the army's most reprehensible missions. Instead of bolstering the morale of the entire army he would have to assassinate a priest. Both interpretations of the character are present in the Showcase Presents edition, and both of them provide for many excellent stories. But it is incredibly jarring when the switch occurs.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Phonogram

I'm going to keep this one short because I've already written it once but technical difficulties on my end is forcing me to rewrite this and I'm tired. Anyway Phonogram is a mixed bag sort of comic from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It's essentially a tribute to the authors' love/hate relationship with Britpop. There's also a lot about magic, changing one's identity, and a subplot about resurrection Britannia after Kula Shaker killed her inadvertently.

The book is a blast if you're someone like me who still hum along to Blur on occasion and overuse Elastica tracks on mix tapes, but anyone else is going to get lost.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Resurrectionist

I think there's a really good novel to be had in the Resurrectionist, but the author isn't quite able to realize it's potential. The plot's of both of the books narratives are fascinating. The prose is excellent and I found myself hooked instantly. And the ultimate moral of the story is one I whole heartedly endorse.

Now here's the but, or buts actually. First and foremost is that O'Connell doesn't quite manage to sell the world in which the story occurs. It's clear that the two separate stories our linked in some way, but this idea never seems fully realized. Furthermore the antagonistic atmosphere of the lead protagonist's story, that the reader is meant to interpret as being reality, comes off as such a strange place in its own right that it feels like fantasy, and this takes the reader out of the story.

I also hated that the author O'Connell had to explicitly state that not all stories require endings. This is true, but making it that apparent just makes the non-ending feel like it was merely an attempt to cover for an unintended absence. And furthermore, while endings may not be required, resolutions are, and that's a bit lacking here as well.

While that all sounds harsh, I actually do recommend reading the book, just with some reservations is all. It's still the first novel in a long time in which the very first thing I did upon finishing it was look up what else the author had written.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Captain America

It's probably fairly obvious at this point, but I read a lot of comics, far more than I ever have the time to review here. I've tried to limit my write ups to collected editions, which means that I've skipped anything I'm reading on a monthly basis. However, I feel I must speak up a bit about Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's current run on Captain America.

This book is unquestionably the greatest superhero book being written today, and is probably the best one to be written in the time that I've been a serious comics junky (I started in 91). Brubaker was always an incredibly good writer, or at least he has been on his creator owned books. But this book just brings him to a whole different level.

Every issue to date has been thrilling, ballsy, and at the same time true to the history of the character. Killing the lead character and continuing the story without him would have been enough to prove Brubaker's fearlessness as a writer, but he doesn't stop there. Resurrecting Bucky, who a few years ago people would have been listed along with Spider-Man's Uncle Ben as a sacrosanct death in comics history would have been enough. Reviving Cap's paltry rogues gallery by somehow making the crew of misfits (including Doctor Faustus, a super villain based on Freud and Arnim Zola, a mad scientist who decapitated himself and now has his face appear on a tv screen in his stomach) both menacing and genuinely fascinating to watch, would have been enough. Put together the book has become a work of genius, and the best part is that the story isn't over yet.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Fledgling

I finished listening to the audiobook of Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling today, and now I'm just upset. Butler was one of the most important genre writers of the last few decades, and her sudden death was nothing short of a travesty. And now that I've read her final novel I just feel a bit disappointed.

Butler's was an astonishing talent, and this was a horrible note for her to wrap up her career on. While not a bad book, it is a bit uninspired, featuring an amnesiac, teen aged vampire. Butler's focus seemed to be on the sociology of the species in the book, and the protagonists amnesia was a method for introducing the reader to this alien culture. However, what winds up happening is a gigantic info dump that's thinly disguised as a novel. Butler has put a lot of effort into creating this world, and there is a lot of love for her creation on display, but something isn't right when I'm in the car listening to nothing but exposition for over an hour.

The biggest shame is that this book was intended to form the first chapter of a trilogy. Given that the flaws in the book are a little more excusable since I would eagerly read the next two parts now that the info dumping is over. But since those books are never going to happen I can't help but be annoyed by the structural problems in this novel, especially since Butler can do better. Her Parable novels are two of the tightest written s.f. novels I have ever read (as well as being the bleakest dystopian stories of all time). It's just wrong that someone so good had to end with this.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Essential Avengers vol.6

Here I am with my second Steve Englehart book in a month, I must be stuck in a run. Anyway Vol. 6 of the Essential Avengers covers the bulk of his run on the book, and it is one of the odder periods in the history of the comic. The majority of this book is taken up by the Celestial Madonna saga, in which Vietnamese heroine Mantis is told she's the Celestial Madonna and the Avengers spend the next year trying to work out what that means. Highlights from the story include the Avengers being led around by 2 talking sticks for three issues and Mantis eventually marrying a tree.

It's not all that odd however, and quite a lot of truly fun Avengers stories are included here as well. The Vision and the Scarlet Witch marry, the Legion of the Unliving is created in order to live up to its name and the time traveler Kang attacks incessantly in three different incarnations (some of which fight each other). So the book has all the fun of a typical mid-70's Marvel comic, but I really have trouble getting around a year long story that ends with someone marrying a tree.

Friday, February 29, 2008

I Am America (and So Can You)

I think I have a new record holder for the book that's taken the longest time for me to finish. I began reading Stephen Colbert's I am America the day it was released, that was roughly 4 months ago. I've been reading the book in single page chunks every other day or so. I don't think this was quite the intended way to go through this book, but it held up even in my staccato reading of it.

If you're already a fan of Colbert's from his show, then this book is not going to surprise you in any way. The entire book reads like an extended one of Colbert's Word segments, with footnotes filling in for the show's graphics. If you weren't a fan previously then this book serves as a superb introduction to his brand of razor sharp satire. Just be prepared because Colbert doesn't spare a single potential target for his mock-conservative sense of humor. But if you're willing to have everything you hold sacred ridiculed (and brilliantly at that) then you will love this book.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Madman Volume 3

It took years to get all of the issues, but I've finally been able to finish reading Madman. Of course now Mike Allred has started writing it again so so much for that, but at least I'm current.

Anyway the third and final volume of Image's reprint series has the lead tracking down his former mentor turned giant star traveling brain, entering into a tie-in with the G-Men from Hell movie (not so good but it did have Robert Goulet playing the devil), and meeting Mr. Gum who goes onto the spin-off book, the Atomics. There's also a thinly veiled guest appearance by Robert Rodriguez.

The stories are Allred's usual blend of fun adventure and pop surrealism and his art keeps improving with every issue. The G-Men from Hell arc is a little odd in that Madman is essentially written out of his own book for 4 issues, but is a decent story in its own right. Mostly these tales just further my already incredibly high opinion of Allred's talents

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Dragons of Babel

I'm not sure what it says that we're not quite two months into the year and I've already finished what I considered to be my most highly anticipated novel of the year, Michael Swanwick's the Dragons of Babel. This book is a pseudo-sequel to Swanwick's masterpiece, the Iron Dragon's Daughter. That book was one of the few classic genre novels to emerge from the 90's. This one doesn't quite live up to its predecessor.

The faeriepunk (somehow I doubt I'm coining that term here) world Swanwick created is perhaps the most original fantasy setting to date. And what the Iron Dragon's Daughter touched upon is much more fully explored in this novel. However, while that is the books greatest strength, Swanwick gets a bit carried away with sub plots that serve this function over furthering the plot. It's no surprise that many sections of the novel were released as short stories previously, and thus the novel never seems to fully cohere the way it ought to, and it just feels a bit too disappointing because of it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Adam Strange

Oh Adam Strange, the most redundant of all the heroes in comicdom, but also one of the best.

Here's how an Adam Strange story works. Adam speeds to some remote destination on Earth in order to intercept a Zeta Beam that will transport him to the planet Rann (he always makes it with seconds to spare). The love of his life Alanna greets him on Rann, at which point the planet is attacked by some sort of invulnerable menace. Then Adam, armed only with a jet pack and ray gun (that never works) wins the day with some sort of science macguffin. Finally Alanna tries to reward Adam with a kiss, only for the Zeta Beam to wear off, sending Adam back to Earth. Every story then ends with Adam (or occasionally Alanna just for a bit of variety) staring up at the stars and longing for the next time the two will meet.

Yes the stories are hokey (in one issue Rann is attacked by giant fireflies), yes the solutions are a bit forced (Adam once has to lecture an entire planet of scientists on how magnets work), and yes the formula gets old quick. However, these stories are also the purest example of golden age pulp s.f. that you could possibly find (did I mention the jetpack?).

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Essential Captain America Vol. 4

I think I've spoken of my love of 70's superhero books here before, particularly the era when a small group of writers (namely Steve Gerber, Denny O'Neil, and Steve Englehart) began to use the medium to explore various social issues. The height of these stories were Gerber's Howard the Duck, O'Neil's Green Arrow/Green Lantern, and Englehart's Captain America, now collected in the fourth volume of the Essential Captain America.

The stories in this collection are considered by many to be the highest point in the character's nearly 70 year career. This was the first time in which the Captain was portrayed as having different values than his country and this fundamental change to one of the most iconic pop culture characters out there made him something he never had been before, relevant. Combine that with a handful of other lasting additions to both the character and the Marvel Universe (the first appearances of Moonstone, Baron Zemo, and Roxxon as well as the Falcon's wings), and this book becomes a key piece of comics history.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Last Musketeer

Another year, another beautifully understated book from Jason. This time it's the Last Musketeer, in which an apparently immortal Athos attempts to save the Earth from a Martian invasion. But in typical fashion the story is mostly focused on misunderstandings between the sexes and ennui. Oh and is imbued with the driest sense of humor of anything you're likely to see this year.

Doom Patrol

I just realized that I have yet to write a post about a Grant Morrison book (52 doesn't really count since he was just one of four writers). Fortunately Vertigo has just released the final collection of his revamp of the Doom Patrol. Granted it's not exactly his best book, but how can you not love something that features a sentient transvestite street (the hardware stores have lace curtains) as one of the main characters.

Morrison is a truly unique writer, with a talent for coming up with so many brilliant ideas that he can afford to throw most of them away in his books. There are seriously pages from some of his comics that could form the basis for another writer's novel. The downside of this brilliance is that he can occasionally get a bit carried away by his imagination. And the Doom Patrol can definitely fall into that category.

The Doom Patrol was originally conceived of as a team of misfit characters. When Morrison took over the book he decided to accentuate the oddness of the concept and gave the team a mandate to investigate strange occurrences. This led to stories featuring such things as the Brotherhood of Dada, Crazy Jane the heroine with 64 personalities, and in this collection the Candlemaker, the embodiment of mankind's fear of the bomb. Unsurprisingly these sorts of stories can be a bit inconsistent to say the least, but the good more than makes up for the bad. And even at the times when the story fails, at least it never lacks for ambition.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Scalped

It takes some real guts to write noir taking place on a Native American reservation in which you name the protagonist Dashiell Bad Horse. It's an action akin to throwing down a gauntlet, and before doing it you had better be damn sure that the story you're writing can back up such a proclamation. Fortunately Jason Aaron's Scalped succeeds at this task.

The book is Vertigo's latest attempt to distance themselves from the dark fantasies that their name became synonymous with thanks to books like Sandman and Preacher. The imprint has been in a bit of a slump lately, with a number of under performing titles (Testament, Exterminators, and the one I really wished people could start a campaign to save, Crossing Midnight) and its highest profile book, Y the Last Man, reaching its conclusion this week. Scalped is exactly the sort of thing they needed to get out of the doldrums.

Aaron is writing an incredibly bleak crime drama of an FBI agent who's "undercover as himself", or at least as the person who he used to be. The book is about trying to go home again, it's about racial tensions, it's about life in a place where the life expectancy is 15 years lower than the national average, and in only five issues it's had more twists than Vertigo's other ongoing crime masterpiece, 100 Bullets. Jason Aaron has just become my new author to watch.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Escapists

In the Escapists, the always reliable Brian K. Vaughan has created the perfect outlet for espouses his opinions on the comics industry. The ultimate moral of the story is that people should spend more time creating their own stories instead of contributing to preexisting ones. However, the book is also a follow-up to Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. Thus at its core, the premise is a bit undercut.

Fortunately, this is Vaughan we're talking about and the man is incapable of telling a bad story, and this one is clearly one he feels passionate about. And as a bonus he's backed by a foursome of excellent (and generally underutilized) artists, Philip Bond, Steve Rolston, Jason Shawn Alexander, and Eduardo Barreto. Alexander in particular shines here and I truly hope to start seeing more work from him in the future.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Somnambulist

The Somnambulist proved to be a truly frustrating novel for me. I kept reading in the hope that it would improve, but somehow the text always disappointed just when it seemed to be on the cusp of improving. When a story hinges on the reveal of a zombified romantic poet and you see the twist coming, there's a problem.

The story also flounders a bit by trying to be a few too many things at once. The prose is equal parts Arthur Conan Doyle and Susanna Clarke. The introduction is straight out of a Series of Unfortunate Events, so you start right off thinking the book seems slightly unoriginal.

Still, there are quite a few redeeming qualities to the book. Barnes spends a lot of the novel trying to show off how clever he is, but does genuinely succeed on occasion. The atmosphere is excellent, with a just slightly tweaked version of London serving as the real star of the story. Barnes shows a lot of promise for a novice writer, but this is clearly the work of a Freshman.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Spook Country

Thanks to a lot of travel recently I've finally had a chance to get through another audio book. This time around it was Spook Country, William Gibson's follow-up to the brilliant Pattern Recognition. Sadly it doesn't quite live up to the promise of its predecessor.

In the novel, Gibson brings back Blue Ant, a black ops ad-agency that seeks out new trends in tech-savvy subcultures. This time around the focus is on an art movement combining GPS and CGI technologies with Heads up displays. And just like in the prior novel, Blue Ant operates through an unusual proxy, in this case a former rocker turned music journalist.

Gibson is an incredibly talented writer with a real talent for writing stories that take place on the razor edge of the future, and this book is no exception. However it does feel that he's treading much of the same ground that Pattern Recognition already did, but to a lesser effect.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Castle Waiting

Linda Medley's Castle Waiting is just a wonderful comic, and I'm not just saying that because it features a bearded nun who hides a copy of Jurgen in her bible (if you aren't familiar with Jurgen then go out and read it right now). Medley has taken a fairly basic concept (what happens to Sleeping Beauty's kingdom after she runs off with Prince Charming) and has made it something utterly unique and wonderful.

Ultimately, the book comes down to a series of character studies, but thrives on the strength of those characters. The bearded nun is not an isolated standout, but part of an astoundingly diverse cast.

The only flaw to be detected in the book can be attributed to its troubled publishing history. Castle Waiting began as a self-published book, then changed to Jeff Smith's Cartoon Books imprint, and then came to a premature conclusion so it could go on hiatus back in 2001 due to low sales.

Fortunately, Fantagraphics has come to the rescue and we can look forward to the story continuing at last.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Queen of Candesce

It's really nice to have a series worth getting excited about again. Karl Schroeder's Virga series has actually managed to make me interested in an ongoing S.F. epic. I think the last time that happened was David Brin's first Uplift War trilogy, so it's been awhile.

The second book in the series, Queen of Candesce, is quite an interesting departure from the first book. Schroeder only retains a single character from the first novel, Venera Fanning, and picks up her story immediately after the events of the prior novel where she was left stranded in the air between planets in the artificial galaxy of Virga.

She eventually lands on the world of spire, a decaying cylinder encompassing a horde of feuding micro nations. This setting allows Schroeder to shift the action from the first books waring fleets to some far more intimate court politics, while still leaving plenty of room to find interesting uses for gravity. This is an excellent book that proudly continues the promise of the first novel in the series.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Essential Moon Knight Vol.2

Moon Knight was never one of Marvel's better characters, despite having one of the better costumes. In fact the character has probably mostly endured based upon the quality of the artists that have worked on him (David Finch, Kevin Nowlan, and for most of this book Bill Sienkiewicz). The character himself is just odd. He's a Batman knock off, who began life as a villain for Werewolf By Night, whose defining characteristic is that he has 4 aliases and occasionally has bouts of multiple personality syndrome because of that. Oh and I almost forgot to mention that he's a Jew who worships the Egyptian God of the moon, who resurrected him on a few occasions.

This particular volume finishes the Doug Moench/Bill Sienkiewicz run, which was probably the character's high point. These stories introduced Morpheus and Stained Glass Scarlet, who were both surprisingly interesting antagonists, but they also spent far too much time on Nimrod Strange and his Slayers "did we mention they're a coalition of extreme leftist and rightist terrorists dedicated to the overthrow of all governments" Elite.

But the real star of this book is Bill Sienkiewicz, a phenomenal artist who is very rarely given material to work with that suits his surreal style. Next to his Daredevil/Elektra collaborations with Frank Miller, this is probably his best work for Marvel. This is also one of the times when I'm thankful for Marvel's black and white editions, as Sienkiewicz's pencils have often been obscured by the colorists who worked with him.

All in all a surprisingly decent collection.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Queen and Country

Queen and Country is probably the best comic that I had not been actively collecting. Now Oni Press has begun putting out a "definitive edition" of Greg Rucka's masterpiece, so I couldn't resist any longer. The story is roughly what'd you'd get if Aaron Sorkin worked on an espionage show for the BBC. The story is split between action heavy field missions and the bureaucracy and politics occurring in the operations room. The end result is possibly the most well conceived suspense story to date.

I originally read these comics in their serialized form by borrowing them from my brother. They were great then and their even better now in the collected edition. The only defect is the inconsistency in the art. The art chores for each story arc are handled by a different artist, in the first volume these are Steve Rolston, Brian Hurtt and Leandro Fernandez. Each of these artists are wonderful, but their styles due clash a bit in a collected edition like this. Fernandez's chiaroscuro-like inking stands out in particular (although it does mesh fairly well with Tim Sale's cover art). But their individual efforts are all excellent, and the book as a whole is very nearly flawless.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The New Frontier

Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier is possibly the most beautiful comic to be published in the last decade. The book is a love letter to Silver Age DC comics, and to the era which spawned them. The art, which was honed from Cooke's years as an animator, is just gorgeous (especially in the Absolute Edition, my new precious) and the writing on every page shows the sheer joy that Cooke is having playing with these characters (ranging from mainstays like Superman to the obscure, such as King Faraday).

The plot isn't much, based as it is around an element from the War that Time Forgot. But this still allows Cooke to show these larger than life characters discovering themselves, even as the readers first did back in the late 50's and early 60's. This book is simply inspiring, and reaffirms everything that I fell in love with about comics in the first place.